TAMPA — Rarely do numbers tell the whole story of what occurs on a football field. But, at times, some are undeniable.
Take, for instance, the fact that the Bucs rank last in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on just 36.4 percent of occasions when the offense reaches an opponent's 20-yard line.
The problem cropped up again Sunday at New Orleans, where Tampa Bay's first three scoring drives ended with field goals. The Bucs technically were 1-for-2 in scoring touchdowns in the red zone, but the day's events were indicative of a problem that has plagued this team all season.
Put simply, too many drives end in field goals.
And when the opposition finds the end zone with regularity, the math isn't difficult.
"We've had our opportunities," quarterback Josh Freeman said. "(The execution) has been a hair off. If we're on, we've got touchdowns there. We ended up kicking more field goals than (scoring) touchdowns. And it's hard to win in this division, especially against the Saints, if you're not scoring touchdowns."
Generally, the Bucs have moved the ball efficiently this season. They are on pace to surpass last season's totals in first downs, passing yards and total yards. Conversely, they are down in one important category: scoring. Tampa Bay averages 18.4 points per game, 24th in the league, and a major reason is its inability to convert when within striking distance.
Consider Sunday's game. The Bucs gave up the ball on downs at the Saints 29 in the first quarter. Then, they settled for field goals after reaching the Saints 22-, 30-, and 7-yard line at various points.
So, what's behind this seemingly chronic problem?
At times coaches chalked it up to costly interceptions. Freeman has thrown four inside the 20, including two on Oct. 23 against the Bears.
But that hasn't always been the problem. Against the Saints, the failures stemmed from poor execution, including a couple of inexact throws from Freeman.
"Looking back on it, it was a combination of turnovers early on," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "We're cleaning that up. Last week, it was partly a lack of execution. We made a point of (saying) we've got to do a better job of transferring what we're doing on the practice field in those situations, to the game.
"We went back and looked at our practice reps on Monday after the loss. We said, 'Here's the practice reps, and here it is on game day.' We need to transfer it to game day, and we didn't do that. It's a constant process."
Said Freeman: "Everything in the red zone is more condensed. It's got to happen faster, and we just haven't been on our game and haven't been making a lot of plays."
Defenses obviously play a role. Defensive coordinators have used a variety of tactics inside the red zone. Receiver Mike Williams — a prime target in the red zone last season who has just one touchdown in 2011 — said defenses often play zone coverages in the red zone.
In those scenarios, because the area being covered is smaller, Freeman has smaller windows to throw the ball. Also, Williams said, "opportunity balls" or jump balls he often caught for touchdowns from Freeman in the past, are harder to complete against zones. Unfortunately for the Bucs, such throws are a staple of their red zone offense.
"We're getting a lot of zone in the red zone, not man-to-man coverage," Williams said. "I guess a lot of teams see that (on film). With man-to-man, the jump ball is the best call."
The red zone struggles are a problem that won't and can't be ignored. Olson continues to work to make his unit sharper at the most critical moments. He knows there's no other choice.
"The red zone for us has been a thorn in our side this season," he said. "It's unacceptable."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]